With the Cincinnati Bengals dropping their third straight Wild Card Weekend playoff game, questions understandably have been raised about quarterback Andy Dalton's future with the franchise. In the game, Dalton threw two interceptions and fumbled the ball away once, directly costing his team a postseason victory.
This wasn't the first time Dalton earned the blame for a playoff loss. The 27-10 defeat at the hands of the San Diego Chargers marked the occasion of Dalton's first postseason touchdown pass. He's thrown a combined six interceptions over those three games with just that lone score.
While Dalton has improved as a passer in his three seasons with the Bengals, his inability to be clutch in the one game that matters most has led to concerns that he won't be their long-term solution at quarterback.
Sports Illustrated's Peter King said on Monday that he thinks that "the Bengals are going to have to consider bringing competition to training camp for Andy Dalton." Bleacher Report's Ty Schalter agrees, adding that Dalton lacks the "it" factor of a playoff-winning quarterback. Even Bengals owner Mike Brown has admitted to not wanting to draft Dalton in 2011, preferring Colin Kaepernick, but he was vetoed by offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, who believed Dalton would be a better fit.
But, ultimately, Dalton's job security is tied to his head coach, Marvin Lewis, and Lewis doesn't seem to be going anywhere. And Lewis stands by his quarterback, saying on Sunday after the loss, "I don’t have any questions about Andy’s role in this thing. We just have to keep working it. We’ve got to make sure we’re doing everything to help Andy all the time."
That was further confirmed on Monday when, as reported by Bengals.com's Geoff Hobson, Dalton said that Lewis has reiterated his and the team's commitment to him remaining the Bengals' starting quarterback:
Dalton: Marvin told me I'm his guy— Geoff Hobson (@GeoffHobsonCin) January 6, 2014
But is it the right decision?
For all of the help Dalton has provided the Bengals to reach the postseason for each of the three years he's been in the NFL, does that cancel out what he's done to cost them games when they get there? Or, better yet, let Andrew Sicilliano from the NFL Network sum up the schizophrenic Dalton and his 2013 season:
The Andy Dalton debate is fascinating. He's 0-3 in the playoffs. But, only Peyton and Brees threw more TD this season.— Andrew Siciliano (@AndrewSiciliano) January 6, 2014
It's almost unheard of for a single player to be repeatedly to blame for three back-to-back playoff losses. That simple fact is also both a reason for the Bengals to be skeptical of Dalton's long-term job prospects as much as it is a reason he could or should stay around. They cannot assume this will just keep happening. Especially when football is a team sport. But the possibility is always looming that Dalton can help get them there but he'll never win it for them.
But it is curious that the quarterback, the position generally assigned the most blame or credit for a loss or win, actually did control the outcome of these three particular games. In none of Cincinnati's postseason losses did the team score more than 13 points.
It didn't matter that, for the five previous games played in Cincinnati by the Bengals—all wins—they scored no fewer than 34 points. It didn't matter that the Bengals had an undefeated home record. It didn't even matter that Dalton, just the week previously, threw four interceptions against the Baltimore Ravens and the Bengals still won handily.
|2011||@ HOU||42||27||64.29%||257||0||3||L, 31-10|
|2012||@ HOU||30||14||46.67%||127||0||1||L, 19-13|
|2013||vs. SD||51||29||56.86%||334||1||2||L, 27-10|
None of it seems to matter once Week 18 rolls around. The franchise passing and touchdown records are just a bittersweet reminder that Dalton's same old limitations can resurface at just the wrong times. And while all of Dalton's key stats have been on the rise with each additional year of NFL experience, so are his interception totals.
It's all well and good for Dalton to show progress, in general, as a quarterback. He, at least, is not regressing. But if that progress doesn't improve the Bengals' postseason fate, does it really matter?
That is the crux of the "is he, or isn't he?" debate about Dalton: When is improvement not enough? When is improvement not really improvement at all?
From a practical standpoint, Dalton is under contract with the Bengals until the 2015 league year starts and has a modest, $1.66 million salary-cap hit for 2014. There's no reason why the Bengals need to part ways for him or demote him. But there is an argument for bringing in some kind of viable competition this offseason, like King and Schalter mention, to at least push Dalton and at most succeed him.
At the very least, Dalton has one more year to prove himself to himself, his teammates, his coaches, his owner and the Bengals fanbase. He'll have to do it under more scrutiny than ever, and the stakes—his very livelihood in the NFL—will be extraordinarily high.
Dalton, however, brought this pressure onto himself by playing poorly on Sunday. While it's not wrong for the Bengals to redouble on their commitment to Dalton for at least 2014, he's going to need a good season and a decisive playoff victory for the Bengals to continue to be patient with the developing young quarterback.
Impatience is often the hallmark of expectations given third- (and soon-to-be fourth-) year quarterbacks. It is often expected that they file themselves firmly in the Peyton Manning aisle or the Mark Sanchez aisle by that time. It's far too soon for that for Dalton after just three seasons, but he may still force the Bengals' hand after his fourth even if he hasn't fully shown all that he's capable of doing in the NFL.
For a team this rife with talent at practically every position and enviable depth at most, not getting it right at quarterback could cost them a trip to the Super Bowl. Dalton has one critical year to prove he's the correct man for the job. Dalton could have done that on Sunday and now it will have to wait 12 more months.